Friday, August 31, 2007

XI. Diving adventures 2

Following my abortive dive into the depths of the Yazoo River, confident that there was much more treasure at the bottoms of the oceans and rivers than lying about on land, I decided that I would become a mighty scuba diver, accomplished in whatever means necessary to survey the vast expanses of oceans and rivers. To that end I enrolled in a diver’s school in Jackson, Mississippi, and for several weeks studied and practiced – in a swimming pool – all the skills required of a Certified Diver. The technical aspects of the scuba gear and the effects of depths on man I absorbed quite readily. The actual practice, however, disturbed me, for I found that without the benefit of a dozen beers, I had an unnatural fear of drowning. Strapping on thirty pounds of tanks plus weight belts and lying on the bottom of the pool breathing through a mouthpiece was quite scary enough, but when it came time to practice survival on the occasion of an empty oxygen tank – that’s when you share one tank between two divers without the benefit of masks – that’s when I found that with little provocation, I could become quite panicky. This fact I hid from my instructors and my classmates, for there were cuties in the diving class who wouldn’t look with great admiration upon a chicken diver who was afraid of drowning. Let this be of note to all men who read this: Women are your downfall.
I managed to survive the training; I was issued my temporary license. Now came the real thing: an open water dive that would result in my being issued my “Certified Diver” credentials. This was scheduled several weeks later to take place in the Gulf of Mexico, near Destin, Florida.
The dreaded day neared. I drove to Destin the day before the dive was scheduled and stayed at the same motel where my classmates had reservations. The other guys and I had a great evening with the females who were scheduled for the dive, each of us bragging about our prowess beneath the waves – and the covers, of course. The girls were a lively bunch, good sports, who, I thought, grew more wide-eyed and appreciative of us rugged guys with each of our ever-more-incredible boasts. By the end of the night I was the one person on whom Jacque Cousteau relied when faced with his most difficult missions.
Wide-eyed at 5:00AM, I lay in bed and wished my friend Jacque could be here to take my place. There was no way around it now, though. I showered and shaved and donned my shorts and T-shirt, grabbed my bag of diving equipment, and trudged to the dock, where my buddies, male and female, were already boarding the dive boat, a 60-footer, more or less, with a long flat deck surrounded by three-foot gunwales.
The weather had the effect of further dampening my spirits. Though the sun shone brightly, a wind was blowing at what seemed gale force. Thirty minutes after we left the dock I felt the first wave of seasickness. As I emptied last night’s beer and chips over the gunwales, the wind whipped the waves into twelve to fourteen foot mini-tsunamis. I noticed then that I wasn’t the only one barfing over the rail; soon not only the divers, but the entire crew (the experienced seamen-divers!) were taking their turn at feeding the fish. It would have been hilarious if I hadn’t felt so bad.
The churning of my stomach was somewhat alleviated when I lay on my back, so lie on my back I did, until the orders came for all divers to don their wet suits. I couldn’t stand to don my wet suit without barfing anew, so I squeezed into the contraption while wiggling around on my back. That worked. You can’t strap on an oxygen tank while lying on your butt, however, so I waited until the very last minute, when my buddies were already being ordered over the side by the instructors, to leap up and struggle into the remainder of the scuba gear. Fighting back the nausea, I stared unbelievingly over the gunwales at the roiling water beneath us. The waves were tossing the boat up twenty feet, the boat was then slamming down onto the surface some twenty feet below.
Jump into that? I thought. Are these people nuts? We better call this damn thing off.
“Don’t grab hold of the anchor line!” my instructor shouted to me, “It’ll tear your arm off!”
“Wait” I shouted, “Don’t you think we ought to…”
“Jump! Wait ‘til we come down close, then jump!”
“I can’t…”
“Jump, asshole!”
None of the cuties were around. They’d all already dived in to their deaths, I guessed. No one would know if I just forgot about this whole damn certification business…
“Jump, dammit!”
The instructor was pretty damn mad, I saw, and was coming toward me with an evil look to his eye. I took a deep breath and…
I suppose I was too intent upon fleeing to remember the part about jumping when the boat was near the surface, for I leapt as the sea was doing its thing – propelling the boat into the air – with the result that I shot upward like I had on booster rockets, then met the sea below with monumental impact. Forced far beneath the surface, facemask and mouthpiece dislodged by the collision, I knew for certain my time was near. Paddling furiously, desperately (thank God for fins), I managed to break the surface before running out of air. The anchor line was nearby; instinctively I grabbed it and hung on for dear life as it tried its best to whip me loose. No way. Me and that anchor line were inseparable. It took another minute for me to locate and reposition my mask and mouthpiece while being thoroughly thrashed by the anchor line.
Then a strange thing happened (I still haven’t figured this one out). Though I was squeezing that whipping anchor line with all the power my fists could bring to bear, I slowly slid down, down, down into the depths of the Gulf. I wasn’t anxious to go south, but I wasn’t in control. Luckily, I now had vision and air. And the closer I got to the seabed the less the anchor line beat me, and the more the seasickness was abated. When my fins touched bottom, all was eerily quiet and still.
This ain’t too bad! I thought as I searched the water about me for sight of my comrades. There they were. I saw them. Fifty yards away. Swimming leisurely away, leaving me behind, lost at sea.
Then I became aware that there was something else swimming leisurely along nearby…
My God! I screamed to no one but me. Fish! Big fish! Barracuda!
There were four of them. I had read about and seen pictures of these killers, talked with the other divers about their big teeth, rows of teeth that could cut a diver to pieces in about thirty seconds. Now four of them swam toward me as I watched, too frightened to move, flat-footed on the sandy sea bottom clutching my anchor line.
I had heard they had big eyes, but this…! Three feet in diameter! Sure, terror tends to amplify impressions. Perhaps they were only twelve inches in diameter. Maybe it was the water magnifying things. Regardless, they had monstrous eyes, and they all were staring at me.
Perhaps I wasn’t juicy enough. Perhaps my manly chest and bulging muscles frightened them. Or perhaps they took pity on a poor, terrified puny little guy? Or perhaps barracuda don’t like to eat divers after all. Whatever the reason, the big fish just eyed me as they swam past without even slowing for a closer look.
Once they were out of sight and I dared to breath again, I remembered I was alone at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico with no way to get home unless I crawled back up that slippery anchor line – and that was suicide – or located my diving group. Frantically I took off in the direction I’d last seen them. They hadn’t gotten far, and were just beginning an inspection of an old shipwreck when I caught up with them. I joined them, and for the first time began to enjoy the adventure. The ship lying on the bottom of the Gulf had deteriorated to skeleton status and was of passing interest. There were rocks and sand and a few fish, but little else to demand attention. Our group swam leisurely along, each investigating whatever offered curiosity, each apparently content to enjoy the sights amid the absence of sound.
A dark spot on the ocean floor soon attracted my attention. I floated gently down to investigate. The object appeared to be iron or steel, dark and rusty, with rivet heads exposed along the twelve by twelve inches that could be seen. A treasure chest! I realized immediately. Fanning the sand away, I uncovered the top of the chest. Sure enough. A perfectly square top about fifteen inches by fifteen inches. Wow! I thought. Treasure – gold and silver coins – for sure! Who woulda thought?
I realized that I would never find this spot again, that I had to dig the chest from its grave right now, and somehow lug it back to the ship. With both hands I began scooping sand away from the edges of the chest, so much so that I was nearly blinded. After removing perhaps six inches from all around it, I used both hands to grab and pull and… what was this? The chest had no sides! It was just a damn rusty old piece of iron plate!
I decided I wouldn’t mention my terrific find to the others as I looked around to be sure no one had noticed. Great Scott! I bubbled as I scanned the vicinity. My group was no where in sight. I was all alone!
Frantic once again to find them I made like Superfish and paddled and flipped in the direction I had last seen them. In a minute I realized that was not the right direction, so I tried another, and another, and another. I don’t know how long I streaked around the Gulf of Mexico searching for my group, but it seemed like hours. God! I thought when I finally realized I would never see them again. Lost at sea! I could see the headlines now: “Malcolm Allred, beloved Engineer and Treasure Hunter, lost at sea. Entire city mourns loss.”
The only thing that made sense now was to surface and try to find the mother ship. I had used up a lot of stamina and air with all the undersea acrobatics, and, as I found out later, we had all been swimming against an undersea current. So I was beat. And when my head broke the surface and I saw our boat – a mere speck on the horizon that disappeared every few seconds behind the hundred-foot waves – I momentarily hoped the barracuda would return and quickly end my pain.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim fourteen miles in mountain-size waves when you’re dead tired and weighed down with scuba gear, but I know from the experience it’s an experience I don’t want to repeat. When I finally reached the boat I felt as though every muscle in my body had died. And what should greet me? I should have known. Just another horror.
The wind and waves had calmed not one iota. If anything, the waves were larger, the wind howling across them. I hadn’t noticed until now that there was a steel grating about eight feet long by four feet wide bolted to the rear of the boat that during normal dives served as an embarking platform for the returning divers. Normally the platform would have been at water level. Today, it was fifteen feet above my head one second, smashing downward with tremendous impact onto the surface of the ocean the next. If my timing were off even a bit when I tried to board, I could very well be dinner for those four barracuda. Lining the gunwales, discussing my plight, my now-returned-safely-and-waiting-on-me classmates surveyed the spectacle below them, making no effort to hide their sadistic grins. Were they making book on my chances of survival? I wondered. I also wondered if the cuties would recognize that no Jacque Cousteau floundered in the Gulf before them.
Fatigued as I was, I managed a miracle by grabbing the platform edge and pulling myself on board. Dragging myself to my feet I climbed the short ladder up to and over the gunwale and fell head first to the deck below, where I wiggled from my tank in a prone position, too weak to shed the wet suit. Far too worn out to get to my feet, I lay on my back where I fell. I didn’t even mind that my buddies and the cuties sauntered past occasionally, pointing and guffawing. I just lay there, immobilized, demoralized, shame-ridden, and let the sun beat down upon my naked face for nearly the entire two-hour stretch that remained of the ordeal. I wound up with a burn that kept my mug hidden at home for several days.
Needless to say, I bragged no more of my Cousteau-like qualities. Hell, I didn’t ever want to be seen by those people again! When I got back to my car I swung north and drove hard. The dive instructors kindly sent along my certification papers a couple of weeks later, but you know what? I didn’t give a darn if I ever used them to fill another scuba tank!

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